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rue des irelandaisThe Cité des Sciences in Paris teaches you many things. For instance, that children will run past exhibits to do with agriculture, machinery and electricity in order to get to the water games.

Or that French children, supposedly the best-behaved in the world, can wet an innocent passer-by as well as any. But the really striking thing I learned was that the earth is tilted away from the sun at an angle of 23 degrees.

I don’t know how I managed to survive a Christian Brothers education without knowing this, but it came as news to me. I wondered if I should lean a little to the right to remain upright.

Without this angle of tilt, we wouldn’t have the seasons, or the differing lengths of daylight, or all the social and cultural rituals that have developed to mark these differences.

We wouldn’t have the same winds and tides that have shaped landscapes and peoples. If the Earth was upright, we’d have 12 hours of day and 12 of night. No deviation, no long summer evenings, no dark winter nights.

There would be no spring, no summer. Nothing for poets to write about, nothing for novelists to describe. We may give out about the late spring or the chilly summer, but at least our seasons arrive eventually.

I’m not sure my daughter took in the ramifications of this angled approach to the sun. “Why are you walking funny, dad?” she asked as we headed outside to dry off after the water exhibit.

Later that evening, we went to a reading given by Seamus Heaney at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in the Latin Quarter.

He was introduced by our Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan. Mr Deenihan has the air of a man for whom deviation from the vertical axis is neither here nor there. He leans forward at the same pugnacious angle no matter what.

Gripping the lectern and flexing his powerful arms, he looked like a prize fighter. He scared the living bejaysus out of the effete, delicate Paris poetry crowd.

Seamus Heaney was “right up there” with Yeats and Wilde, Joyce and Beckett, he said. He had been “producing work” since the 1970s and he was still at it, representing a country that “punched above its weight”. He’d be a great man to warm up the crowd at a boxing match, I thought.

Heaney spoke next, and it was apparent that, while Deenihan was all bludgeon, the Nobel laureate was all rapier. He made his points subtly, and they were wreathed in charm and self-deprecation, but all the more telling for that.

I confess I didn’t know much about Heaney’s poetry. But two or three of the poems he read that evening in the old Irish College in the 5th Arrondisement have stayed with me.

He referred to Yeats, to Auden and to Beaudelaire and Guillevic. The air was heady with poetry and poets and you felt now that if you spoke, your words would come out in iambic pentameter. Even the Minister’s lantern jaw relaxed.

He read about courting on a rug spread out in a Belfast garden on a Sunday when all the parks were closed, about watching his father digging outside the window, and about the men who carry the sick to be healed.

He read about bogs and rivers so that you could nearly see and smell them. He read about the glory of a drive out west, to the coast of Co Clare, “when the wind/And the light are working off each other…”

There is a line in this poem – Postscript – which sums up the effect of Heaney’s poetry itself. He is writing about a drive on a windy day along that Clare coast: “As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”.

Heaney’s poems sneak up on you like that, and you find at the end of the evening, that your heart has indeed been blown open.

And to think, I pointed out to my daughter on the way out, that none of that could have happened, not the poems, nor the landscape, not the bogs, nor the Co Clare wind, unless the Earth was tilted at 23 degrees away from the sun.

(First published in the Irish Independent, June 22, 2013)